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The tyranny of suburbia:how changing places is still a very middle class thing

The class system is alive and well when it comes to people moving up the housing chain, according to a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which talks of ‘the tyranny of suburbia’.

And while ‘residential mobility’ has increased dramatically since the mid-1970s, middle class suburbanites have successfully imposed their ‘tastes’ onto the housing field, says research from Sheffield Hallam University, led by Professor Chris Allen.

Social scientists have argued that uprooting to live in a different area is caused by ‘triggers’ such as the decline of a neighbourhood. Conversely, immobility is said to be due to an absence of these triggers, or to constraints such as lack of money.

However, the new study, centred on a regeneration neighbourhood of Liverpool, found that attitudes to moving home were much more influenced by social class background.

In interviews with residents, directors of regeneration companies, local officials, community workers, estate agents and others involved, researchers identified two groups of household types. They dubbed these ‘located’ and ‘cosmopolitan’.

Located residents were working class, and their main consideration was to get from ‘day to day’. They judged their housing and neighbourhood on that basis, and did not even see themselves as being on a property ladder. Cosmopolitans were middle class and paid enough to be able to see beyond the need to survive from day to day.

Professor Allen, now based at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “Although ‘happy with their lot’, located, or working class residents saw the choice of where to live as only between the suburban ideal, which they could not have, and ‘everything else’. They did not consider a strategic move to climb the housing ladder and reach suburbia eventually.

“This shows just how successful middle class residents have been at imposing their tastes when it comes to the places we live in.” Professor Allen continued: “In other words, located residents only desired what was for 'other people' rather than 'the likes of them', so they only valued what they could not have, and this worsened their chances of moving up.”

Turning to the middle class residents, or cosmopolitans, the study says that although less obsessed with the suburban ideal, some did aspire to suburbia, and saw living in the redevelopment area as a step towards it.

Professor Allen said: “Freedom from the necessities of day to day survival enabled them to view the housing market as a landscape of social, economic and cultural ‘signals’ that they interpreted and responded to with mobility.

“They liked the area, but were only ‘here for now’. They were able to step back a bit and judge the place from a distance. And they valued it because of its location in terms of the city centre, and closeness to such places as restaurants and entertainment venues, even if parts of it were 'scruffy'.”

Working class residents saw regeneration plans for the area for what was produced 'here and now', and they lamented the agencies involved for 'doing nothing'. Cosmopolitans, meanwhile, saw regeneration as adding to future potential, even if progress was slow.

However, Professor Allen points out: “The tendency for middle class households to add value to places on their way up the housing ladder actually destabilises their suburban ideal, and therefore the principles that govern the housing field. This raises questions about the unfolding nature of divisions among the middle classes.”

Professor Chris Allen, on 0161 247 6170 or
Or Alexandra Saxon/Annika Howard at ESRC, on 01793 413032/413119 or

Annika Howard | alfa
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